An account liquidation occurs when the holdings of an account are sold off by the firm in which the account was created. In the majority of cases, this will deal with problems arising with margin requirements. When you sign up for a margin account with a brokerage firm, that firm obtains the legal right to liquidate your account when you are unable to meet the account's requirements.

There are two main account types: cash accounts and margin accounts. A cash account only allows an investor to purchase securities up to the amount of the cash held in the account. For example, if an account has $10,000 in cash, the account holder will only be able to purchase a maximum of $10,000 worth of stock.

With cash accounts, a brokerage firm does not have the same ability to liquidate unless it is in regards to an external factor like a personal bankruptcy. A margin account, on the other hand, allows investors to borrow money from a brokerage firm on top of the money they have placed in the account, usually up to 50%. Therefore, if you have $5,000 in the account, you could potentially purchase $10,000 in securities.

A typical requirement of a margin account is to maintain at least 25% equity, or your own money, of the total market value at any given point. For example, suppose you purchase $10,000 worth of stock with $5,000 of your own money and $5,000 of margin money. If the value of this position were to fall to $7,500, your equity position in the investment falls to $2,500 ($7,500-$5,000), which represents 33% margin - above the 25% requirement.

However, if the value falls to $6,500, your equity in the position would be reduced to $1,500 ($6,500-$5,000), which puts your margin at 23%, falling below the minimum margin requirement of 25%. If the account does fall below the minimum maintenance margin level, you will either have to add more money to the account to meet the margin call or your account will be liquidated in part or in full.

For more information, read the Margin Trading tutorial.

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